Ala Salameh: Identity Through Solidarity

Is a recipient of the 2018-2019 MALA Scholarship Program.  In accordance with MALA’s mission, this program awards scholarships to individuals demonstrate ambition, integrity, and leadership through the art of storytelling. To learn more about MALA’s Scholarship Opportunities, click here. 

Last Spring, Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law was a microcosm of our broader society, for better and worse. While business always proceeded as usual, the backdrop of racist, sexist, and xenophobic conduct was transpiring by students to students, faculty to students, and likely amongst the faculty themselves. The student-organized “Cultural Impact Initiative” (CII) triaged complaints about sexual assault survivors forced to remain in classes with predators, professors publicly asking students of color questions about welfare programs, and comprehensive exams continuously using hypotheticals about Muslim defendants in terrorism cases, among others. After several years of CII privately meeting with administrators with change, they decided to form a nine-student coalition which I am proud to have been a member of.

There are a few noteworthy things about this collective. First, the nine-student coalition included our student body President (a Black brother) and the Presidents of the Black, Latinx, Muslim, LBGTQIA, Jewish, and Women’s Rights student groups—no small feat. Historically, there has been discord and/or lack of collaboration among the groups, but we came together on the basis of mutually appreciated strife to effect positive change. Second, the demand letter, ultimately circulated to the entire law school, administration, and alumni community, included anecdotes of the lived traumas of our peers with a direct list of demands to be made expeditiously by the administration.

While we study in a relatively “liberal” city and academic space, the legal profession is incredibly conservative. Disrupting the semblance of peace for the majority is not only frowned upon, but actively reprimanded. Students prior were threatened with not satisfying the “Character and Fitness” portion of the bar requirements, potentially compromising their ability to become licensed attorneys due to their activism. We were met with significant backlash from fellow students and faculty (some went so far as to create Gmail aliases and bombard us with hate mail), while minority students and alumni rallied in support.

Nonetheless, our letter outlined fifteen demands including:

1. Creation of a mandatory course for 1L students to address legal issues of religion, race, gender, sexuality, class, immigration, ability, implicit bias, etc

2. Creation of a mandatory 1L book requirement discussing issues of disenfranchised minorities such as The New Jim Crow and The Color of Law.

3. Hiring more professors, faculty, and administration who are people of color.

4. Hiring a new qualified full-time Director of Inclusion and Cultural Competency Coordinator.

5. Creation of a prayer space for the observance of obligatory daily prayers.

The letter was sent in April 2018. By August 2018, each of the demands outlined above were satisfied. That needs a moment to sink in. After decades of minority students and alumni expressed frustration with the practical realities of the law school, a nine-student coalition, by the grace of God, made it happen in less than five months.

By fall of 2018, I along with my peers of the coalition, served as Teaching Assistants for the newly created mandatory course for the entire incoming class, grappling with diversity of religion, race, sexual identity, experience, and the like. By fall of 2018, I sat in the office of our newly installed Dean of Diversity and Inclusion and discussed the rampant surveillance of Muslim communities across the U.S., and how to do our part in combating it. By fall of 2018, I relished in the closure of sujood in our freshly cleared prayer space in the law school.

This (finally!) brings me to the initial question of my identity, and how it has come to be. Much of my “becoming Muslim” in a real, taqwa-deep, sense has been through my own religious exploration during undergrad and beyond. While it began as a very individualized experience trying to understand what God intended with Islam and being comfortable in my own skin (praying in public corridors no less…), it transformed into a communal experience centered on forging alliances and acts of service.

Islam in every iteration (from Adam to Muhammad, peace and blessings onto them all) was revealed both to reclaim God’s oneness, and to deliver communities from suffering. I understand myself, as a Muslima in the U.S., to be an agent of relief, responsible for the understanding and solidarity with communities in distress, while also honoring my personal religious obligations. Experiences like that of the student coalition and its distribution of the demand letter embody just that- standing in solidarity with my peers, victims of unspeakable tribulations, to create lasting change for us all, and protection of those to come. While solidarity and alliances succeed with extensive efforts, miscommunications, commitment, hurt, and patience, they bring about positive change for the Ummah and our brothers and sisters beyond. I believe this type of work and solidarity reflect my Muslim identity at its finest.